Gavard's manners with Florent were altogether those of a man tasting some forbidden pleasure. He contemplated him with blinking eyes, lowered his voice even when making the most trifling remark, and grasped his hand with all sorts of masonic flummery. He had at last lighted upon something in the way of an adventure; he had a friend who was really compromised, and could, without falsehood speak of the dangers he incurred. He undoubtedly experienced a secret alarm at the sight of this man who had returned from transportation, and whose fleshlessness testified to the long sufferings he had endured; however, this touch of alarm was delightful, for it increased his notion of his own importance, and convinced him that he was really doing something wonderful in treating a dangerous character as a friend. Florent became a sort of sacred being in his eyes: he swore by him alone, and had recourse to his name whenever arguments failed him and he wanted to crush the Government once and for all.
Gavard had lost his wife in the Rue Saint Jacques some months after the Coup d'Etat; however, he had kept on his roasting shop till 1856. At that time it was reported that he had made large sums of money by going into partnership with a neighbouring grocer who had obtained a contract for supplying dried vegetables to the Crimean expeditionary corps. The truth was, however, that, having sold his shop, he lived on his income for a year without doing anything. He himself did not care to talk about the real origin of his fortune, for to have revealed it would have prevented him from plainly expressing his opinion of the Crimean War, which he referred to as a mere adventurous expedition, "undertaken simply to consolidate the throne and to fill certain persons' pockets." At the end of a year he had grown utterly weary of life in his bachelor quarters. As he was in the habit of visiting the Quenu-Gradelles almost daily, he determined to take up his residence nearer to them, and came to live in the Rue de la Cossonnerie. The neighbouring markets, with their noisy uproar and endless chatter, quite fascinated him; and he decided to hire a stall in the poultry pavilion, just for the purpose of amusing himself and occupying his idle hours with all the gossip. Thenceforth he lived amidst ceaseless tittle-tattle, acquainted with every little scandal in the neighbourhood, his head buzzing with the incessant yelping around him. He blissfully tasted a thousand titillating delights, having at last found his true element, and bathing in it, with the voluptuous pleasure of a carp swimming in the sunshine. Florent would sometimes go to see him at his stall. The afternoons were still very warm. All along the narrow alleys sat women plucking poultry. Rays of light streamed in between the awnings, and in the warm atmosphere, in the golden dust of the sunbeams, feathers fluttered hither and thither like dancing snowflakes. A trail of coaxing calls and offers followed Florent as he passed along. "Can I sell you a fine duck, monsieur?" "I've some very fine fat chickens here, monsieur; come and see!" "Monsieur! monsieur, do just buy this pair of pigeons!" Deafened and embarrassed he freed himself from the women, who still went on plucking as they fought for possession of him; and the fine down flew about and wellnigh choked him, like hot smoke reeking with the strong odour of the poultry. At last, in the middle of the alley, near the water-taps, he found Gavard ranting away in his shirt-sleeves, in front of his stall, with his arms crossed over the bib of his blue apron. He reigned there, in a gracious, condescending way, over a group of ten or twelve women. He was the only male dealer in that part of the market. He was so fond of wagging his tongue that he had quarrelled with five or six girls whom he had successively engaged to attend to his stall, and had now made up his mind to sell his goods himself, naively explaining that the silly women spent the whole blessed day in gossiping, and that it was beyond his power to manage them. As someone, however, was still necessary to supply his place whenever he absented himself he took in Marjolin, who was prowling about, after attempting in turn all the petty market callings.
Florent sometimes remained for an hour with Gavard, amazed by his ceaseless flow of chatter, and his calm serenity and assurance amid the crowd of petticoats. He would interrupt one woman, pick a quarrel with another ten stalls away, snatch a customer from a third, and make as much noise himself as his hundred and odd garrulous neighbours, whose incessant clamour kept the iron plates of the pavilion vibrating sonorously like so many gongs.
The poultry dealer's only relations were a sister-in-law and a niece. When his wife died, her eldest sister, Madame Lecoeur, who had become a widow about a year previously, had mourned for her in an exaggerated fashion, and gone almost every evening to tender consolation to the bereaved husband. She had doubtless cherished the hope that she might win his affection and fill the yet warm place of the deceased. Gavard, however, abominated lean women; and would, indeed, only stroke such cats and dogs as were very fat; so that Madame Lecoeur, who was long and withered, failed in her designs.
With her feelings greatly hurt, furious at the ex-roaster's five-franc pieces eluding her grasp, she nurtured great spite against him. He became the enemy to whom she devoted all her time. When she saw him set up in the markets only a few yards away from the pavilion where she herself sold butter and eggs and cheese, she accused him of doing so simply for the sake of annoying her and bringing her bad luck. From that moment she began to lament, and turned so yellow and melancholy that she indeed ended by losing her customers and getting into difficulties. She had for a long time kept with her the daughter of one of her sisters, a peasant woman who had sent her the child and then taken no further trouble about it.
This child grew up in the markets. Her surname was Sarriet, and so she soon became generally known as La Sarriette. At sixteen years of age she had developed into such a charming sly-looking puss that gentlemen came to buy cheeses at her aunt's stall simply for the purpose of ogling her. She did not care for the gentlemen, however; with her dark hair, pale face, and eyes glistening like live embers, her sympathies were with the lower ranks of the people. At last she chose as her lover a young man from Menilmontant who was employed by her aunt as a porter. At twenty she set up in business as a fruit dealer with the help of some funds procured no one knew how; and thenceforth Monsieur Jules, as her lover was called, displayed spotless hands, a clean blouse, and a velvet cap; and only came down to the market in the afternoon, in his slippers. They lived together on the third storey of a large house in the Rue Vauvilliers, on the ground floor of which was a disreputable cafe.
Madame Lecoeur's acerbity of temper was brought to a pitch by what she called La Sarriette's ingratitude, and she spoke of the girl in the most violent and abusive language. They broke off all intercourse, the aunt fairly exasperated, and the niece and Monsieur Jules concocting stories about the aunt, which the young man would repeat to the other dealers in the butter pavilion. Gavard found La Sarriette very entertaining, and treated her with great indulgence. Whenever they met he would good-naturedly pat her cheeks.
One afternoon, whilst Florent was sitting in his brother's shop, tired out with the fruitless pilgrimages he had made during the morning in search of work, Marjolin made his appearance there. This big lad, who had the massiveness and gentleness of a Fleming, was a protege of Lisa's. She would say that there was no evil in him; that he was indeed a little bit stupid, but as strong as a horse, and particularly interesting from the fact that nobody knew anything of his parentage. It was she who had got Gavard to employ him.
Lisa was sitting behind the counter, feeling annoyed by the sight of Florent's muddy boots which were soiling the pink and white tiles of the flooring. Twice already had she risen to scatter sawdust about the shop. However, she smiled at Marjolin as he entered.
"Monsieur Gavard," began the young man, "has sent me to ask—"
But all at once he stopped and glanced round; then in a lower voice he resumed: "He told me to wait till there was no one with you, and then to repeat these words, which he made me learn by heart: 'Ask them if there is no danger, and if I can come and talk to them of the matter they know about.'"
"Tell Monsieur Gavard that we are expecting him," replied Lisa, who was quite accustomed to the poultry dealer's mysterious ways.
Marjolin, however, did not go away; but remained in ecstasy before the handsome mistress of the shop, contemplating her with an expression of fawning humility.
Touched, as it were, by this mute adoration, Lisa spoke to him again.
"Are you comfortable with Monsieur Gavard?" she asked. "He's not an unkind man, and you ought to try to please him."
"Yes, Madame Lisa."
"But you don't behave as you should, you know. Only yesterday I saw you clambering about the roofs of the market again; and, besides, you are constantly with a lot of disreputable lads and lasses. You ought to remember that you are a man now, and begin to think of the future."
"Yes, Madame Lisa."
However, Lisa had to get up to wait upon a lady who came in and wanted a pound of pork chops. She left the counter and went to the block at the far end of the shop. Here, with a long, slender knife, she cut three chops in a loin of pork; and then, raising a small cleaver with her strong hand, dealt three sharp blows which separated the chops from the loin. At each blow she dealt, her black merino dress rose slightly behind her, and the ribs of her stays showed beneath her tightly stretched bodice. She slowly took up the chops and weighed them with an air of gravity, her eyes gleaming and her lips tightly closed.
When the lady had gone, and Lisa perceived Marjolin still full of delight at having seen her deal those three clean, forcible blows with the cleaver, she at once called out to him, "What! haven't you gone yet?"
He thereupon turned to go, but she detained him for a moment longer.
"Now, don't let me see you again with that hussy Cadine," she said. "Oh, it's no use to deny it! I saw you together this morning in the tripe market, watching men breaking the sheep's heads. I can't understand what attraction a good-looking young fellow like you can find in such a slipshod slattern as Cadine. Now then, go and tell Monsieur Gavard that he had better come at once, while there's no one about."
Marjolin thereupon went off in confusion, without saying a word.
Handsome Lisa remained standing behind her counter, with her head turned slightly in the direction of her markets, and Florent gazed at her in silence, surprised to see her looking so beautiful. He had never looked at her properly before; indeed, he did not know the right way to look at a woman. He now saw her rising above the viands on the counter. In front of her was an array of white china dishes, containing long Arles and Lyons sausages, slices of which had already been cut off, with tongues and pieces of boiled pork; then a pig's head in a mass of jelly; an open pot of preserved sausage-meat, and a large box of sardines disclosing a pool of oil. On the right and left, upon wooden platters, were mounds of French and Italian brawn, a common French ham, of a pinky hue, and a Yorkshire ham, whose deep red lean showed beneath a broad band of fat. There were other dishes too, round ones and oval ones, containing spiced tongue, truffled galantine, and a boar's head stuffed with pistachio nuts; while close to her, in reach of her hand, stood some yellow earthen pans containing larded veal, pate de foie gras, and hare-pie.
As there were no signs of Gavard's coming, she arranged some fore-end bacon upon a little marble shelf at the end of the counter, put the jars of lard and dripping back into their places, wiped the plates of each pair of scales, and saw to the fire of the heater, which was getting low. Then she turned her head again, and gazed in silence towards the markets. The smell of all the viands ascended around her, she was enveloped, as it were, by the aroma of truffles. She looked beautifully fresh that afternoon. The whiteness of all the dishes was supplemented by that of her sleevelets and apron, above which appeared her plump neck and rosy cheeks, which recalled the soft tones of the hams and the pallor of all the transparent fat.
As Florent continued to gaze at her he began to feel intimidated, disquieted by her prim, sedate demeanour; and in lieu of openly looking at her he ended by glancing surreptitiously in the mirrors around the shop, in which her back and face and profile could be seen. The mirror on the ceiling, too, reflected the top of her head, with its tightly rolled chignon and the little bands lowered over her temples. There seemed, indeed, to be a perfect crowd of Lisas, with broad shoulders, powerful arms, and round, full bosoms. At last Florent checked his roving eyes, and let them rest on a particularly pleasing side view of the young woman as mirrored between two pieces of pork. From the hooks running along the whole line of mirrors and marbles hung sides of pork and bands of larding fat; and Lisa, with her massive neck, rounded hips, and swelling bosom seen in profile, looked like some waxwork queen in the midst of the dangling fat and meat. However, she bent forward and smiled in a friendly way at the two gold-fish which were ever and ever swimming round the aquarium in the window.
Gavard entered the shop. With an air of great importance he went to fetch Quenu from the kitchen. Then he seated himself upon a small marble-topped table, while Florent remained on his chair and Lisa behind the counter; Quenu meantime leaning his back against a side of pork. And thereupon Gavard announced that he had at last found a situation for Florent. They would be vastly amused when they heard what it was, and the Government would be nicely caught.
But all at once he stopped short, for a passing neighbour, Mademoiselle Saget, having seen such a large party gossiping together at the Quenu-Gradelles', had opened the door and entered the shop. Carrying her everlasting black ribbonless straw hat, which appropriately cast a shadow over her prying white face, she saluted the men with a slight bow and Lisa with a sharp smile.
She was an acquaintance of the family, and still lived in the house in the Rue Pirouette where she had resided for the last forty years, probably on a small private income; but of that she never spoke. She had, however, one day talked of Cherbourg, mentioning that she had been born there. Nothing further was ever known of her antecedents. All her conversation was about other people; she could tell the whole story of their daily lives, even to the number of things they sent to be washed each month; and she carried her prying curiosity concerning her neighbours' affairs so far as to listen behind their doors and open their letters. Her tongue was feared from the Rue Saint Denis to the Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and from the Rue Saint Honore to the Rue Mauconseil. All day long she went ferreting about with her empty bag, pretending that she was marketing, but in reality buying nothing, as her sole purpose was to retail scandal and gossip, and keep herself fully informed of every trifling incident that happened. Indeed, she had turned her brain into an encyclopaedia brimful of every possible particular concerning the people of the neighbourhood and their homes.
Quenu had always accused her of having spread the story of his Uncle Gradelle's death on the chopping-block, and had borne her a grudge ever since. She was extremely well posted in the history of Uncle Gradelle and the Quenus, and knew them, she would say, by heart. For the last fortnight, however, Florent's arrival had greatly perplexed her, filled her, indeed, with a perfect fever of curiosity. She became quite ill when she discovered any unforeseen gap in her information. And yet she could have sworn that she had seen that tall lanky fellow somewhere or other before.
She remained standing in front of the counter, examining the dishes one after another, and saying in a shrill voice:
"I hardly know what to have. When the afternoon comes I feel quite famished for my dinner, and then, later on, I don't seem able to fancy anything at all. Have you got a cutlet rolled in bread-crumbs left, Madame Quenu?"
Without waiting for a reply, she removed one of the covers of the heater. It was that of the compartment reserved for the chitterlings, sausages, and black-puddings. However, the chafing-dish was quite cold, and there was nothing left but one stray forgotten sausage.
"Look under the other cover, Mademoiselle Saget," said Lisa. "I believe there's a cutlet there."
"No, it doesn't tempt me," muttered the little old woman, poking her nose under the other cover, however, all the same. "I felt rather a fancy for one, but I'm afraid a cutlet would be rather too heavy in the evening. I'd rather have something, too, that I need not warm."
While speaking she had turned towards Florent and looked at him; then she looked at Gavard, who was beating a tattoo with his finger-tips on the marble table. She smiled at them, as though inviting them to continue their conversation.
"Wouldn't a little piece of salt pork suit you?" asked Lisa.
"A piece of salt pork? Yes, that might do."
Thereupon she took up the fork with plated handle, which was lying at the edge of the dish, and began to turn all the pieces of pork about, prodding them, lightly tapping the bones to judge of their thickness, and minutely scrutinising the shreds of pinky meat. And as she turned them over she repeated, "No, no; it doesn't tempt me."
"Well, then, have a sheep's tongue, or a bit of brawn, or a slice of larded veal," suggested Lisa patiently.
Mademoiselle Saget, however, shook her head. She remained there for a few minutes longer, pulling dissatisfied faces over the different dishes; then, seeing that the others were determined to remain silent, and that she would not be able to learn anything, she took herself off.
"No; I rather felt a fancy for a cutlet rolled in bread-crumbs," she said as she left the shop, "but the one you have left is too fat. I must come another time."
Lisa bent forward to watch her through the sausage-skins hanging in the shop-front, and saw her cross the road and enter the fruit market.
"The old she-goat!" growled Gavard.
Then, as they were now alone again, he began to tell them of the situation he had found for Florent. A friend of his, he said, Monsieur Verlaque, one of the fish market inspectors, was so ill that he was obliged to take a rest; and that very morning the poor man had told him that he should be very glad to find a substitute who would keep his berth open for him in case he should recover.
"Verlaque, you know, won't last another six months," added Gavard, "and Florent will keep the place. It's a splendid idea, isn't it? And it will be such a take-in for the police! The berth is under the Prefecture, you know. What glorious fun to see Florent getting paid by the police, eh?"
He burst into a hearty laugh; the idea struck him as so extremely comical.
"I won't take the place," Florent bluntly replied. "I've sworn I'll never accept anything from the Empire, and I would rather die of starvation than serve under the Prefecture. It is quite out of the question, Gavard, quite so!"
Gavard seemed somewhat put out on hearing this. Quenu had lowered his head, while Lisa, turning round, looked keenly at Florent, her neck swollen, her bosom straining her bodice almost to bursting point. She was just going to open her mouth when La Sarriette entered the shop, and there was another pause in the conversation.
"Dear me!" exclaimed La Sarriette with her soft laugh, "I'd almost forgotten to get any bacon fat. Please, Madame Quenu, cut me a dozen thin strips—very thin ones, you know; I want them for larding larks. Jules has taken it into his head to eat some larks. Ah! how do you do, uncle?"
She filled the whole shop with her dancing skirts and smiled brightly at everyone. Her face looked fresh and creamy, and on one side her hair was coming down, loosened by the wind which blew through the markets. Gavard grasped her hands, while she with merry impudence resumed: "I'll bet that you were talking about me just as I came in. Tell me what you were saying, uncle."
However, Lisa now called to her, "Just look and tell me if this is thin enough."
She was cutting the strips of bacon fat with great care on a piece of board in front of her. Then as she wrapped them up she inquired, "Can I give you anything else?"
"Well, yes," replied La Sarriette; "since I'm about it, I think I'll have a pound of lard. I'm awfully fond of fried potatoes; I can make a breakfast off a penn'orth of potatoes and a bunch of radishes. Yes, I'll have a pound of lard, please, Madame Quenu."
Lisa placed a sheet of stout paper in the pan of the scales. Then she took the lard out of a jar under the shelves with a boxwood spatula, gently adding small quantities to the fatty heap, which began to melt and run slightly. When the plate of the scale fell, she took up the paper, folded it, and rapidly twisted the ends with her finger-tips.
"That makes twenty-four sous," she said; "the bacon is six sous—thirty sous altogether. There's nothing else you want, is there?"
"No," said La Sarriette, "nothing." She paid her money, still laughing and showing her teeth, and staring the men in the face. Her grey skirt was all awry, and her loosely fastened red neckerchief allowed a little of her white bosom to appear. Before she went away she stepped up to Gavard again, and pretending to threaten him exclaimed: "So you won't tell me what you were talking about as I came in? I could see you laughing from the street. Oh, you sly fellow! Ah! I sha'n't love you any longer!"
Then she left the shop and ran across the road.
"It was Mademoiselle Saget who sent her here," remarked handsome Lisa drily.
Then silence fell again for some moments. Gavard was dismayed at Florent's reception of his proposal. Lisa was the first to speak. "It was wrong of you to refuse the post, Florent," she said in the most friendly tones. "You know how difficult it is to find any employment, and you are not in a position to be over-exacting."
"I have my reasons," Florent replied.
Lisa shrugged her shoulders. "Come now," said she, "you really can't be serious, I'm sure. I can understand that you are not in love with the Government, but it would be too absurd to let your opinions prevent you from earning your living. And, besides, my dear fellow, the Emperor isn't at all a bad sort of man. You don't suppose, do you, that he knew you were eating mouldy bread and tainted meat? He can't be everywhere, you know, and you can see for yourself that he hasn't prevented us here from doing pretty well. You are not at all just; indeed you are not."
Gavard, however, was getting very fidgety. He could not bear to hear people speak well of the Emperor.
"No, no, Madame Quenu," he interrupted; "you are going too far. It is a scoundrelly system altogether."
"Oh, as for you," exclaimed Lisa vivaciously, "you'll never rest until you've got yourself plundered and knocked on the head as the result of all your wild talk. Don't let us discuss politics; you would only make me angry. The question is Florent, isn't it? Well, for my part, I say that he ought to accept this inspectorship. Don't you think so too, Quenu?"
Quenu, who had not yet said a word, was very much put out by his wife's sudden appeal.
"It's a good berth," he replied, without compromising himself.
Then, amidst another interval of awkward silence, Florent resumed: "I beg you, let us drop the subject. My mind is quite made up. I shall wait."
"You will wait!" cried Lisa, losing patience.
Two rosy fires had risen to her cheeks. As she stood there, erect, in her white apron, with rounded, swelling hips, it was with difficulty that she restrained herself from breaking out into bitter words. However, the entrance of another person into the shop arrested her anger. The new arrival was Madame Lecoeur.
"Can you let me have half a pound of mixed meats at fifty sous the pound?" she asked.
She at first pretended not to notice her brother-in-law; but presently she just nodded her head to him, without speaking. Then she scrutinised the three men from head to foot, doubtless hoping to divine their secret by the manner in which they waited for her to go. She could see that she was putting them out, and the knowledge of this rendered her yet more sour and angular, as she stood there in her limp skirts, with her long, spider-like arms bent and her knotted fingers clasped beneath her apron. Then, as she coughed slightly, Gavard, whom the silence embarrassed, inquired if she had a cold.
She curtly answered in the negative. Her tightly stretched skin was of a red-brick colour on those parts of her face where her bones protruded, and the dull fire burning in her eyes and scorching their lids testified to some liver complaint nurtured by the querulous jealousy of her disposition. She turned round again towards the counter, and watched each movement made by Lisa as she served her with the distrustful glance of one who is convinced that an attempt will be made to defraud her.
"Don't give me any saveloy," she exclaimed; "I don't like it."
Lisa had taken up a slender knife, and was cutting some thin slices of sausage. She next passed on to the smoked ham and the common ham, cutting delicate slices from each, and bending forward slightly as she did so, with her eyes ever fixed on the knife. Her plump rosy hands, flitting about the viands with light and gentle touches, seemed to have derived suppleness from contact with all the fat.
"You would like some larded veal, wouldn't you?" she asked, bringing a yellow pan towards her.
Madame Lecoeur seemed to be thinking the matter over at considerable length; however, she at last said that she would have some. Lisa had now begun to cut into the contents of the pans, from which she removed slices of larded veal and hare pate on the tip of a broad-bladed knife. And she deposited each successive slice on the middle of a sheet of paper placed on the scales.
"Aren't you going to give me some of the boar's head with pistachio nuts?" asked Madame Lecoeur in her querulous voice.
Lisa was obliged to add some of the boar's head. But the butter dealer was getting exacting, and asked for two slices of galantine. She was very fond of it. Lisa, who was already irritated, played impatiently with the handles of the knives, and told her that the galantine was truffled, and that she could only include it in an "assortment" at three francs the pound. Madame Lecoeur, however, continued to pry into the dishes, trying to find something else to ask for. When the "assortment" was weighed she made Lisa add some jelly and gherkins to it. The block of jelly, shaped like a Savoy cake, shook on its white china dish beneath the angry violence of Lisa's hand; and as with her finger-tips she took a couple of gherkins from a jar behind the heater, she made the vinegar spurt over the sides.
"Twenty-five sous, isn't it?" Madame Lecoeur leisurely inquired.
She fully perceived Lisa's covert irritation, and greatly enjoyed the sight of it, producing her money as slowly as possible, as though, indeed, her silver had got lost amongst the coppers in her pocket. And she glanced askance at Gavard, relishing the embarrassed silence which her presence was prolonging, and vowing that she would not go off, since they were hiding some trickery or other from her. However, Lisa at last put the parcel in her hands, and she was then obliged to make her departure. She went away without saying a word, but darting a searching glance all round the shop.
"It was that Saget who sent her too!" burst out Lisa, as soon as the old woman was gone. "Is the old wretch going to send the whole market here to try to find out what we talk about? What a prying, malicious set they are! Did anyone ever hear before of crumbed cutlets and 'assortments' being bought at five o'clock in the afternoon? But then they'd rack themselves with indigestion rather than not find out! Upon my word, though, if La Saget sends anyone else here, you'll see the reception she'll get. I would bundle her out of the shop, even if she were my own sister!"
The three men remained silent in presence of this explosion of anger. Gavard had gone to lean over the brass rail of the window-front, where, seemingly lost in thought, he began playing with one of the cut-glass balusters detached from its wire fastening. Presently, however, he raised his head. "Well, for my part," he said, "I looked upon it all as an excellent joke."
"Looked upon what as a joke?" asked Lisa, still quivering with indignation.
She raised her hands, gave a last glance at Florent, and then sat down upon the cushioned bench behind the counter and said nothing further. Gavard, however, began to explain his views at length; the drift of his argument being that it was the Government which would look foolish in the matter, since Florent would be taking its money.
"My dear fellow," he said complacently, "those scoundrels all but starved you to death, didn't they? Well, you must make them feed you now. It's a splendid idea; it caught my fancy at once!"
Florent smiled, but still persisted in his refusal. Quenu, in the hope of pleasing his wife, did his best to find some good arguments. Lisa, however, appeared to pay no further attention to them. For the last moment or two she had been looking attentively in the direction of the markets. And all at once she sprang to her feet again, exclaiming, "Ah! it is La Normande that they are sending to play the spy on us now! Well, so much the worse for La Normande; she shall pay for the others!"
A tall female pushed the shop door open. It was the handsome fish-girl, Louise Mehudin, generally known as La Normande. She was a bold-looking beauty, with a delicate white skin, and was almost as plump as Lisa, but there was more effrontery in her glance, and her bosom heaved with warmer life. She came into the shop with a light swinging step, her gold chain jingling on her apron, her bare hair arranged in the latest style, and a bow at her throat, a lace bow, which made her one of the most coquettish-looking queens of the markets. She brought a vague odour of fish with her, and a herring-scale showed like a tiny patch of mother-of-pearl near the little finger of one of her hands. She and Lisa having lived in the same house in the Rue Pirouette, were intimate friends, linked by a touch of rivalry which kept each of them busy with thoughts of the other. In the neighbourhood people spoke of "the beautiful Norman," just as they spoke of "beautiful Lisa." This brought them into opposition and comparison, and compelled each of them to do her utmost to sustain her reputation for beauty. Lisa from her counter could, by stooping a little, perceive the fish-girl amidst her salmon and turbot in the pavilion opposite; and each kept a watch on the other. Beautiful Lisa laced herself more tightly in her stays; and the beautiful Norman replied by placing additional rings on her fingers and additional bows on her shoulders. When they met they were very bland and unctuous and profuse in compliments; but all the while their eyes were furtively glancing from under their lowered lids, in the hope of discovering some flaw. They made a point of always dealing with each other, and professed great mutual affection.
"I say," said La Normande, with her smiling air, "it's to-morrow evening that you make your black-puddings, isn't it?"
Lisa maintained a cold demeanour. She seldom showed any anger; but when she did it was tenacious, and slow to be appeased. "Yes," she replied drily, with the tips of her lips.
"I'm so fond of black-puddings, you know, when they come straight out of the pot," resumed La Normande. "I'll come and get some of you to-morrow."
She was conscious of her rival's unfriendly greeting. However, she glanced at Florent, who seemed to interest her; and then, unwilling to go off without having the last word, she was imprudent enough to add: "I bought some black-pudding of you the day before yesterday, you know, and it wasn't quite sweet."
"Not quite sweet!" repeated Lisa, very pale, and her lips quivering.
She might, perhaps, have once more restrained herself, for fear of La Normande imagining that she was overcome by envious spite at the sight of the lace bow; but the girl, not content with playing the spy, proceeded to insult her, and that was beyond endurance. So, leaning forward, with her hands clenched on the counter, she exclaimed, in a somewhat hoarse voice: "I say! when you sold me that pair of soles last week, did I come and tell you, before everybody that they were stinking?"
"Stinking! My soles stinking!" cried the fish dealer, flushing scarlet.
For a moment they remained silent, choking with anger, but glaring fiercely at each other over the array of dishes. All their honeyed friendship had vanished; a word had sufficed to reveal what sharp teeth there were behind their smiling lips.
"You're a vulgar, low creature!" cried the beautiful Norman. "You'll never catch me setting foot in here again, I can tell you!"
"Get along with you, get along with you," exclaimed beautiful Lisa. "I know quite well whom I've got to deal with!"
The fish-girl went off, hurling behind her a coarse expression which left Lisa quivering. The whole scene had passed so quickly that the three men, overcome with amazement, had not had time to interfere. Lisa soon recovered herself, and was resuming the conversation, without making any allusion to what had just occurred, when the shop girl, Augustine, returned from an errand on which she had been sent. Lisa thereupon took Gavard aside, and after telling him to say nothing for the present to Monsieur Verlaque, promised that she would undertake to convince her brother-in-law in a couple of days' time at the utmost. Quenu then returned to his kitchen, while Gavard took Florent off with him. And as they were just going into Monsieur Lebigre's to drink a drop of vermouth together he called his attention to three women standing in the covered way between the fish and poultry pavilions.
"They're cackling together!" he said with an envious air.
The markets were growing empty, and Mademoiselle Saget, Madame Lecoeur, and La Sarriette alone lingered on the edge of the footway. The old maid was holding forth.
"As I told you before, Madame Lecoeur," said she, "they've always got your brother-in-law in their shop. You saw him there yourself just now, didn't you?"
"Oh yes, indeed! He was sitting on a table, and seemed quite at home."
"Well, for my part," interrupted La Sarriette, "I heard nothing wrong; and I can't understand why you're making such a fuss."
Mademoiselle Saget shrugged her shoulders. "Ah, you're very innocent yet, my dear," she said. "Can't you see why the Quenus are always attracting Monsieur Gavard to their place? Well, I'll wager that he'll leave all he has to their little Pauline."
"You believe that, do you?" cried Madame Lecoeur, white with rage. Then, in a mournful voice, as though she had just received some heavy blow, she continued: "I am alone in the world, and have no one to take my part; he is quite at liberty to do as he pleases. His niece sides with him too—you heard her just now. She has quite forgotten all that she cost me, and wouldn't stir a hand to help me."
"Indeed, aunt," exclaimed La Sarriette, "you are quite wrong there! It's you who've never had anything but unkind words for me."
They became reconciled on the spot, and kissed one another. The niece promised that she would play no more pranks, and the aunt swore by all she held most sacred that she looked upon La Sarriette as her own daughter. Then Mademoiselle Saget advised them as to the steps they ought to take to prevent Gavard from squandering his money. And they all agreed that the Quenu-Gradelles were very disreputable folks, and required closely watching.
"I don't know what they're up to just now," said the old maid, "but there's something suspicious going on, I'm sure. What's your opinion, now, of that fellow Florent, that cousin of Madame Quenu's?"
The three women drew more closely together, and lowered their voices.
"You remember," said Madame Lecoeur, "that we saw him one morning with his boots all split, and his clothes covered with dust, looking just like a thief who's been up to some roguery. That fellow quite frightens me."
"Well, he's certainly very thin," said La Sarriette, "but he isn't ugly."
Mademoiselle Saget was reflecting, and she expressed her thoughts aloud. "I've been trying to find out something about him for the last fortnight, but I can make nothing of it. Monsieur Gavard certainly knows him. I must have met him myself somewhere before, but I can't remember where."
She was still ransacking her memory when La Normande swept up to them like a whirlwind. She had just left the pork shop.
"That big booby Lisa has got nice manners, I must say!" she cried, delighted to be able to relieve herself. "Fancy her telling me that I sold nothing but stinking fish! But I gave her as good as she deserved, I can tell you! A nice den they keep, with their tainted pig meat which poisons all their customers!"
"But what had you been saying to her?" asked the old maid, quite frisky with excitement, and delighted to hear that the two women had quarrelled.
"I! I'd said just nothing at all—no, not that! I just went into the shop and told her very civilly that I'd buy some black-pudding to-morrow evening, and then she overwhelmed me with abuse. A dirty hypocrite she is, with her saint-like airs! But she'll pay more dearly for this than she fancies!"
The three women felt that La Normande was not telling them the truth, but this did not prevent them from taking her part with a rush of bad language. They turned towards the Rue Rambuteau with insulting mien, inventing all sorts of stories about the uncleanliness of the cookery at the Quenu's shop, and making the most extraordinary accusations. If the Quenus had been detected selling human flesh the women could not have displayed more violent and threatening anger. The fish-girl was obliged to tell her story three times over.
"And what did the cousin say?" asked Mademoiselle Saget, with wicked intent.
"The cousin!" repeated La Normande, in a shrill voice. "Do you really believe that he's a cousin? He's some lover or other, I'll wager, the great booby!"
The three others protested against this. Lisa's honourability was an article of faith in the neighbourhood.
"Stuff and nonsense!" retorted La Normande. "You can never be sure about those smug, sleek hypocrites."
Mademoiselle Saget nodded her head as if to say that she was not very far from sharing La Normande's opinion. And she softly added: "Especially as this cousin has sprung from no one knows where; for it's a very doubtful sort of account that the Quenus give of him."
"Oh, he's the fat woman's sweetheart, I tell you!" reaffirmed the fish-girl; "some scamp or vagabond picked up in the streets. It's easy enough to see it."
"She has given him a complete outfit," remarked Madame Lecoeur. "He must be costing her a pretty penny."
"Yes, yes," muttered the old maid; "perhaps you are right. I must really get to know something about him."
Then they all promised to keep one another thoroughly informed of whatever might take place in the Quenu-Gradelle establishment. The butter dealer pretended that she wished to open her brother-in-law's eyes as to the sort of places he frequented. However, La Normande's anger had by this time toned down, and, a good sort of girl at heart, she went off, weary of having talked so much on the matter.
"I'm sure that La Normande said something or other insolent," remarked Madame Lecoeur knowingly, when the fish-girl had left them. "It is just her way; and it scarcely becomes a creature like her to talk as she did of Lisa."
The three women looked at each other and smiled. Then, when Madame Lecoeur also had gone off, La Sarriette remarked to Mademoiselle Saget: "It is foolish of my aunt to worry herself so much about all these affairs. It's that which makes her so thin. Ah! she'd have willingly taken Gavard for a husband if she could only have got him. Yet she used to beat me if ever a young man looked my way."
Mademoiselle Saget smiled once more. And when she found herself alone, and went back towards the Rue Pirouette, she reflected that those three cackling hussies were not worth a rope to hang them. She was, indeed, a little afraid that she might have been seen with them, and the idea somewhat troubled her, for she realised that it would be bad policy to fall out with the Quenu-Gradelles, who, after all, were well-to-do folks and much esteemed. So she went a little out of her way on purpose to call at Taboureau the baker's in the Rue Turbigo—the finest baker's shop in the whole neighbourhood. Madame Taboureau was not only an intimate friend of Lisa's, but an accepted authority on every subject. When it was remarked that "Madame Taboureau had said this," or "Madame Taboureau had said that," there was no more to be urged. So the old maid, calling at the baker's under pretence of inquiring at what time the oven would be hot, as she wished to bring a dish of pears to be baked, took the opportunity to eulogise Lisa, and lavish praise upon the sweetness and excellence of her black-puddings. Then, well pleased at having prepared this moral alibi and delighted at having done what she could to fan the flames of a quarrel without involving herself in it, she briskly returned home, feeling much easier in her mind, but still striving to recall where she had previously seen Madame Quenu's so-called cousin.
That same evening, after dinner, Florent went out and strolled for some time in one of the covered ways of the markets. A fine mist was rising, and a grey sadness, which the gas lights studded as with yellow tears, hung over the deserted pavilions. For the first time Florent began to feel that he was in the way, and to recognise the unmannerly fashion in which he, thin and artless, had tumbled into this world of fat people; and he frankly admitted to himself that his presence was disturbing the whole neighbourhood, and that he was a source of discomfort to the Quenus—a spurious cousin of far too compromising appearance. These reflections made him very sad; not, indeed, that they had noticed the slightest harshness on the part of his brother or Lisa: it was their very kindness, rather, that was troubling him, and he accused himself of a lack of delicacy in quartering himself upon them. He was beginning to doubt the propriety of his conduct. The recollection of the conversation in the shop during the afternoon caused him a vague disquietude. The odour of the viands on Lisa's counter seemed to penetrate him; he felt himself gliding into nerveless, satiated cowardice. Perhaps he had acted wrongly in refusing the inspectorship offered him. This reflection gave birth to a stormy struggle in his mind, and he was obliged to brace and shake himself before he could recover his wonted rigidity of principles. However, a moist breeze had risen, and was blowing along the covered way, and he regained some degree of calmness and resolution on being obliged to button up his coat. The wind seemingly swept from his clothes all the greasy odour of the pork shop, which had made him feel so languid.
He was returning home when he met Claude Lantier. The artist, hidden in the folds of his greenish overcoat, spoke in a hollow voice full of suppressed anger. He was in a passion with painting, declared that it was a dog's trade, and swore that he would not take up a brush again as long as he lived. That very afternoon he had thrust his foot through a study which he had been making of the head of that hussy Cadine.
Claude was subject to these outbursts, the fruit of his inability to execute the lasting, living works which he dreamed of. And at such times life became an utter blank to him, and he wandered about the streets, wrapped in the gloomiest thoughts, and waiting for the morning as for a sort of resurrection. He used to say that he felt bright and cheerful in the morning, and horribly miserable in the evening.[*] Each of his days was a long effort ending in disappointment. Florent scarcely recognised in him the careless night wanderer of the markets. They had already met again at the pork shop, and Claude, who knew the fugitive's story, had grasped his hand and told him that he was a sterling fellow. It was very seldom, however, that the artist went to the Quenus'.
[*] Claude Lantier's struggle for fame is fully described in M. Zola's novel, L'Oeuvre ("His Masterpiece"). —Translator.
"Are you still at my aunt's?" he asked. "I can't imagine how you manage to exist amidst all that cookery. The places reeks with the smell of meat. When I've been there for an hour I feel as though I shouldn't want anything to eat for another three days. I ought not to have gone there this morning; it was that which made me make a mess of my work."
Then, after he and Florent had taken a few steps in silence, he resumed:
"Ah! the good people! They quite grieve me with their fine health. I had thought of painting their portraits, but I've never been able to succeed with such round faces, in which there is never a bone. Ah! You wouldn't find my aunt Lisa kicking her foot through her pans! I was an idiot to have destroyed Cadine's head! Now that I come to think of it, it wasn't so very bad, perhaps, after all."
Then they began to talk about Aunt Lisa. Claude said that his mother[*] had not seen anything of her for a long time, and he hinted that the pork butcher's wife was somewhat ashamed of her sister having married a common working man; moreover, she wasn't at all fond of unfortunate folks. Speaking of himself, he told Florent that a benevolent gentleman had sent him to college, being very pleased with the donkeys and old women that he had managed to draw when only eight years old; but the good soul had died, leaving him an income of a thousand francs, which just saved him from perishing of hunger.
[*] Gervaise, the heroine of the Assommoir.
"All the same, I would rather have been a working man," continued Claude. "Look at the carpenters, for instance. They are very happy folks, the carpenters. They have a table to make, say; well, they make it, and then go off to bed, happy at having finished the table, and perfectly satisfied with themselves. Now I, on the other hand, scarcely get any sleep at nights. All those confounded pictures which I can't finish go flying about my brain. I never get anything finished and done with—never, never!"
His voice almost broke into a sob. Then he attempted to laugh; and afterwards began to swear and pour forth coarse expressions, with the cold rage of one who, endowed with a delicate, sensitive mind, doubts his own powers, and dreams of wallowing in the mire. He ended by squatting down before one of the gratings which admit air into the cellars beneath the markets—cellars where the gas is continually kept burning. And in the depths below he pointed out Marjolin and Cadine tranquilly eating their supper, whilst seated on one of the stone blocks used for killing the poultry. The two young vagabonds had discovered a means of hiding themselves and making themselves at home in the cellars after the doors had been closed.
"What a magnificent animal he is, eh!" exclaimed Claude, with envious admiration, speaking of Marjolin. "He and Cadine are happy, at all events! All they care for is eating and kissing. They haven't a care in the world. Ah, you do quite right, after all, to remain at the pork shop; perhaps you'll grow sleek and plump there."
Then he suddenly went off. Florent climbed up to his garret, disturbed by Claude's nervous restlessness, which revived his own uncertainty. On the morrow, he avoided the pork shop all the morning, and went for a long walk on the quays. When he returned to lunch, however, he was struck by Lisa's kindliness. Without any undue insistence she again spoke to him about the inspectorship, as of something which was well worth his consideration. As he listened to her, with a full plate in front of him, he was affected, in spite of himself, by the prim comfort of his surroundings. The matting beneath his feet seemed very soft; the gleams of the brass hanging lamp, the soft, yellow tint of the wallpaper, and the bright oak of the furniture filled him with appreciation of a life spent in comfort, which disturbed his notions of right and wrong. He still, however, had sufficient strength to persist in his refusal, and repeated his reasons; albeit conscious of the bad taste he was showing in thus ostentatiously parading his animosity and obstinacy in such a place. Lisa showed no signs of vexation; on the contrary, she smiled, and the sweetness of her smile embarrassed Florent far more than her suppressed irritation of the previous evening. At dinner the subject was not renewed; they talked solely of the great winter saltings, which would keep the whole staff of the establishment busily employed.
The evenings were growing cold, and as soon as they had dined they retired into the kitchen, where it was very warm. The room was so large, too, that several people could sit comfortably at the square central table, without in any way impeding the work that was going on. Lighted by gas, the walls were coated with white and blue tiles to a height of some five or six feet from the floor. On the left was a great iron stove, in the three apertures of which were set three large round pots, their bottoms black with soot. At the end was a small range, which, fitted with an oven and a smoking-place, served for the broiling; and up above, over the skimming-spoons, ladles, and long-handled forks, were several numbered drawers, containing rasped bread, both fine and coarse, toasted crumbs, spices, cloves, nutmegs, and pepper. On the right, leaning heavily against the wall, was the chopping-block, a huge mass of oak, slashed and scored all over. Attached to it were several appliances, an injecting pump, a forcing-machine, and a mechanical mincer, which, with their wheels and cranks, imparted to the place an uncanny and mysterious aspect, suggesting some kitchen of the infernal regions.
Then, all round the walls upon shelves, and even under the tables, were iron pots, earthenware pans, dishes, pails, various kinds of tin utensils, a perfect battery of deep copper saucepans, and swelling funnels, racks of knives and choppers, rows of larding-pins and needles—a perfect world of greasy things. In spite of the extreme cleanliness, grease was paramount; it oozed forth from between the blue and white tiles on the wall, glistened on the red tiles of the flooring, gave a greyish glitter to the stove, and polished the edges of the chopping-block with the transparent sheen of varnished oak. And, indeed, amidst the ever-rising steam, the continuous evaporation from the three big pots, in which pork was boiling and melting, there was not a single nail from ceiling to floor from which grease did not exude.
The Quenu-Gradelles prepared nearly all their stock themselves. All that they procured from outside were the potted meats of celebrated firms, with jars of pickles and preserves, sardines, cheese, and edible snails. They consequently became very busy after September in filling the cellars which had been emptied during the summer. They continued working even after the shop had been closed for the night. Assisted by Auguste and Leon, Quenu would stuff sausages-skins, prepare hams, melt down lard, and salt the different sorts of bacon. There was a tremendous noise of cauldrons and cleavers, and the odour of cooking spread through the whole house. All this was quite independent of the daily business in fresh pork, pate de fois gras, hare patty, galantine, saveloys and black-puddings.
That evening, at about eleven o'clock, Quenu, after placing a couple of pots on the fire in order to melt down some lard, began to prepare the black-puddings. Auguste assisted him. At one corner of the square table Lisa and Augustine sat mending linen, whilst opposite to them, on the other side, with his face turned towards the fireplace, was Florent. Leon was mincing some sausage-meat on the oak block in a slow, rhythmical fashion.
Auguste first of all went out into the yard to fetch a couple of jug-like cans full of pigs' blood. It was he who stuck the animals in the slaughter house. He himself would carry away the blood and interior portions of the pigs, leaving the men who scalded the carcasses to bring them home completely dressed in their carts. Quenu asserted that no assistant in all Paris was Auguste' equal as a pig-sticker. The truth was that Auguste was a wonderfully keen judge of the quality of the blood; and the black-pudding proved good every time that he said such would be the case.
"Well, will the black-pudding be good this time?" asked Lisa.
August put down the two cans and slowly answered: "I believe so, Madame Quenu; yes, I believe so. I tell it at first by the way the blood flows. If it spurts out very gently when I pull out the knife, that's a bad sign, and shows that the blood is poor."
"But doesn't that depend on how far the knife has been stuck in?" asked Quenu.
A smile came over Auguste's pale face. "No," he replied; "I always let four digits of the blade go in; that's the right way to measure. But the best sign of all is when the blood runs out and I beat it with my hand when it pours into the pail; it ought to be of a good warmth, and creamy, without being too thick."
Augustine had put down her needle, and with her eyes raised was now gazing at Auguste. On her ruddy face, crowned by wiry chestnut hair, there was an expression of profound attention. Lisa and even little Pauline were also listening with deep interest.
"Well, I beat it, and beat it, and beat it," continued the young man, whisking his hand about as though he were whipping cream. "And then, when I take my hand out and look at it, it ought to be greased, as it were, by the blood and equally coated all over. And if that's the case, anyone can say without fear of mistake that the black-puddings will be good."
He remained for a moment in an easy attitude, complacently holding his hand in the air. This hand, which spent so much of its time in pails of blood, had brightly gleaming nails, and looked very rosy above his white sleeve. Quenu had nodded his head in approbation, and an interval of silence followed. Leon was still mincing. Pauline, however, after remaining thoughtful for a little while, mounted upon Florent's feet again, and in her clear voice exclaimed: "I say, cousin, tell me the story of the gentleman who was eaten by the wild beasts!"
It was probably the mention of the pig's blood which had aroused in the child's mind the recollection of "the gentleman who had been eaten by the wild beasts." Florent did not at first understand what she referred to, and asked her what gentleman she meant. Lisa began to smile.
"She wants you to tell her," she said, "the story of that unfortunate man—you know whom I mean—which you told to Gavard one evening. She must have heard you."
At this Florent grew very grave. The little girl got up, and taking the big cat in her arms, placed it on his knees, saying that Mouton also would like to hear the story. Mouton, however, leapt on to the table, where, with rounded back, he remained contemplating the tall, scraggy individual who for the last fortnight had apparently afforded him matter for deep reflection. Pauline meantime began to grow impatient, stamping her feet and insisting on hearing the story.
"Oh, tell her what she wants," said Lisa, as the child persisted and became quite unbearable; "she'll leave us in peace then."
Florent remained silent for a moment longer, with his eyes turned towards the floor. Then slowly raising his head he let his gaze rest first on the two women who were plying their needles, and next on Quenu and Auguste, who were preparing the pot for the black-puddings. The gas was burning quietly, the stove diffused a gentle warmth, and all the grease of the kitchen glistened in an atmosphere of comfort such as attends good digestion
Then, taking little Pauline upon his knee, and smiling a sad smile, Florent addressed himself to the child as follows[*]:—
[*] Florent's narrative is not romance, but is based on the statements of several of the innocent victims whom the third Napoleon transported to Cayenne when wading through blood to the power which he so misused.—Translator.
"Once upon a time there was a poor man who was sent away, a long, long way off, right across the sea. On the ship which carried him were four hundred convicts, and he was thrown among them. He was forced to live for five weeks amidst all those scoundrels, dressed like them in coarse canvas, and feeding at their mess. Foul insects preyed on him, and terrible sweats robbed him of all his strength. The kitchen, the bakehouse, and the engine-room made the orlop deck so terribly hot that ten of the convicts died from it. In the daytime they were sent up in batches of fifty to get a little fresh air from the sea; and as the crew of the ship feared them, a couple of cannons were pointed at the little bit of deck where they took exercise. The poor fellow was very glad indeed when his turn to go up came. His terrible perspiration then abated somewhat; still, he could not eat, and felt very ill. During the night, when he was manacled again, and the rolling of the ship in the rough sea kept knocking him against his companions, he quite broke down, and began to cry, glad to be able to do so without being seen."
Pauline was listening with dilated eyes, and her little hands crossed primly in front of her.
"But this isn't the story of the gentleman who was eaten by the wild beasts," she interrupted. "This is quite a different story; isn't it now, cousin?"
"Wait a bit, and you'll see," replied Florent gently. "I shall come to the gentleman presently. I'm telling you the whole story from the beginning."
"Oh, thank you," murmured the child, with a delighted expression. However, she remained thoughtful, evidently struggling with some great difficulty to which she could find no explanation. At last she spoke.
"But what had the poor man done," she asked, "that he was sent away and put in the ship?"
Lisa and Augustine smiled. They were quite charmed with the child's intelligence; and Lisa, without giving the little one a direct reply, took advantage of the opportunity to teach her a lesson by telling her that naughty children were also sent away in boats like that.
"Oh, then," remarked Pauline judiciously, "perhaps it served my cousin's poor man quite right if he cried all night long."
Lisa resumed her sewing, bending over her work. Quenu had not listened. He had been cutting some little rounds of onion over a pot placed on the fire; and almost at once the onions began to crackle, raising a clear shrill chirrup like that of grasshoppers basking in the heat. They gave out a pleasant odour too, and when Quenu plunged his great wooden spoon into the pot the chirruping became yet louder, and the whole kitchen was filled with the penetrating perfume of the onions. Auguste meantime was preparing some bacon fat in a dish, and Leon's chopper fell faster and faster, and every now and then scraped the block so as to gather together the sausage-meat, now almost a paste.
"When they got across the sea," Florent continued, "they took the man to an island called the Devil's Island,[*] where he found himself amongst others who had been carried away from their own country. They were all very unhappy. At first they were kept to hard labour, just like convicts. The gendarme who had charge of them counted them three times every day, so as to be sure that none were missing. Later on, they were left free to do as they liked, being merely locked up at night in a big wooden hut, where they slept in hammocks stretched between two bars. At the end of the year they went about barefooted, as their boots were quite worn out, and their clothes had become so ragged that their flesh showed through them. They had built themselves some huts with trunks of trees as a shelter against the sun, which is terribly hot in those parts; but these huts did not shield them against the mosquitoes, which covered them with pimples and swellings during the night. Many of them died, and the others turned quite yellow, so shrunken and wretched, with their long, unkempt beards, that one could not behold them without pity."
[*] The Ile du Diable. This spot was selected as the place of detention of Captain Dreyfus, the French officer convicted in 1894 of having divulged important military documents to foreign powers.—Translator.
"Auguste, give me the fat," cried Quenu; and when the apprentice had handed him the dish he let the pieces of bacon-fat slide gently into the pot, and then stirred them with his spoon. A yet denser steam now rose from the fireplace.
"What did they give them to eat?" asked little Pauline, who seemed deeply interested.
"They gave them maggoty rice and foul meat," answered Florent, whose voice grew lower as he spoke. "The rice could scarcely be eaten. When the meat was roasted and very well done it was just possible to swallow it; but if it was boiled, it smelt so dreadfully that the men had nausea and stomach ache."
"I'd rather have lived upon dry bread," said the child, after thinking the matter carefully over.
Leon, having finished the mincing, now placed the sausage-meat upon the square table in a dish. Mouton, who had remained seated with his eyes fixed upon Florent, as though filled with amazement by his story, was obliged to retreat a few steps, which he did with a very bad grace. Then he rolled himself up, with his nose close to the sausage-meat, and began to purr.
Lisa was unable to conceal her disgust and amazement. That foul rice, that evil-smelling meat, seemed to her to be scarcely credible abominations, which disgraced those who had eaten them as much as it did those who had provided them; and her calm, handsome face and round neck quivered with vague fear of the man who had lived upon such horrid food.
"No, indeed, it was not a land of delights," Florent resumed, forgetting all about little Pauline, and fixing his dreamy eyes upon the steaming pot. "Every day brought fresh annoyances—perpetual grinding tyranny, the violation of every principle of justice, contempt for all human charity, which exasperated the prisoners, and slowly consumed them with a fever of sickly rancour. They lived like wild beasts, with the lash ceaselessly raised over their backs. Those torturers would have liked to kill the poor man—Oh, no; it can never be forgotten; it is impossible! Such sufferings will some day claim vengeance."
His voice had fallen, and the pieces of fat hissing merrily in the pot drowned it with the sound of their boiling. Lisa, however, heard him, and was frightened by the implacable expression which had suddenly come over his face; and, recollecting the gentle look which he habitually wore, she judged him to be a hypocrite.
Florent's hollow voice had brought Pauline's interest and delight to the highest pitch, and she fidgeted with pleasure on his knee.
"But the man?" she exclaimed. "Go on about the man!"
Florent looked at her, and then appeared to remember, and smiled his sad smile again.
"The man," he continued, "was weary of remaining on the island, and had but one thought—that of making his escape by crossing the sea and reaching the mainland, whose white coast line could be seen on the horizon in clear weather. But it was no easy matter to escape. It was necessary that a raft should be built, and as several of the prisoners had already made their escape, all the trees on the island had been felled to prevent the others from obtaining timber. The island was, indeed, so bare and naked, so scorched by the blazing sun, that life in it had become yet more perilous and terrible. However, it occurred to the man and two of his companions to employ the timbers of which their huts were built; and one evening they put out to sea on some rotten beams, which they had fastened together with dry branches. The wind carried them towards the coast. Just as daylight was about to appear, the raft struck on a sandbank with such violence that the beams were severed from their lashings and carried out to sea. The three poor fellows were almost engulfed in the sand. Two of them sank in it to their waists, while the third disappeared up to his chin, and his companions were obliged to pull him out. At last they reached a rock, so small that there was scarcely room for them to sit down upon it. When the sun rose they could see the coast in front of them, a bar of grey cliffs stretching all along the horizon. Two, who knew how to swim, determined to reach those cliffs. They preferred to run the risk of being drowned at once to that of slowly starving on the rock. But they promised their companion that they would return for him when they had reached land and had been able to procure a boat."
"Ah, I know now!" cried little Pauline, clapping her hands with glee. "It's the story of the gentleman who was eaten by the crabs!"
"They succeeded in reaching the coast," continued Florent, "but it was quite deserted; and it was only at the end of four days that they were able to get a boat. When they returned to the rock, they found their companion lying on his back, dead, and half-eaten by crabs, which were still swarming over what remained of his body."[*]
[*] In deference to the easily shocked feelings of the average English reader I have somewhat modified this passage. In the original M. Zola fully describes the awful appearance of the body.—Translator. A murmur of disgust escaped Lisa and Augustine, and a horrified grimace passed over the face of Leon, who was preparing the skins for the black-puddings. Quenu stopped in the midst of his work and looked at Auguste, who seemed to have turned faint. Only little Pauline was smiling. In imagination the others could picture those swarming, ravenous crabs crawling all over the kitchen, and mingling gruesome odours with the aroma of the bacon-fat and onions.
"Give me the blood," cried Quenu, who had not been following the story.
Auguste came up to him with the two cans, from which he slowly poured the blood, while Quenu, as it fell, vigorously stirred the now thickening contents of the pot. When the cans were emptied, Quenu reached up to one of the drawers above the range, and took out some pinches of spice. Then he added a plentiful seasoning of pepper.
"They left him there, didn't they," Lisa now asked of Florent, "and returned themselves in safety?"
"As they were going back," continued Florent, "the wind changed, and they were driven out into the open sea. A wave carried away one of their oars, and the water swept so furiously into the boat that their whole time was taken up in baling it out with their hands. They tossed about in this way in sight of the coast, carried away by squalls and then brought back again by the tide, without a mouthful of bread to eat, for their scanty stock of provisions had been consumed. This went on for three days."
"Three days!" cried Lisa in stupefaction; "three days without food!"
"Yes, three days without food. When the east wind at last brought them to shore, one of them was so weak that he lay on the beach the whole day. In the evening he died. His companion had vainly attempted to get him to chew some leaves which he gathered from the trees."
At this point Augustine broke into a slight laugh. Then, ashamed at having done so and not wishing to be considered heartless, she stammered out in confusion: "Oh! I wasn't laughing at that. It was Mouton. Do just look at Mouton, madame."
Then Lisa in her turn began to smile. Mouton, who had been lying all this time with his nose close to the dish of sausage-meat, had probably begun to feel distressed and disgusted by the presence of all this food, for he had risen and was rapidly scratching the table with his paws as though he wanted to bury the dish and its contents. At last, however, turning his back to it and lying down on his side, he stretched himself out, half closing his eyes and rubbing his head against the table with languid pleasure. Then they all began to compliment Mouton. He never stole anything, they said, and could be safely left with the meat. Pauline related that he licked her fingers and washed her face after dinner without trying to bite her.
However, Lisa now came back to the question as to whether it were possible to live for three days without food. In her opinion it was not. "No," she said, "I can't believe it. No one ever goes three days without food. When people talk of a person dying of hunger, it is a mere expression. They always get something to eat, more or less. It is only the most abandoned wretches, people who are utterly lost——"
She was doubtless going to add, "vagrant rogues," but she stopped short and looked at Florent. The scornful pout of her lips and the expression of her bright eyes plainly signified that in her belief only villains made such prolonged fasts. It seemed to her that a man able to remain without food for three days must necessarily be a very dangerous character. For, indeed, honest folks never placed themselves in such a position.
Florent was now almost stifling. In front of him the stove, into which Leon had just thrown several shovelfuls of coal, was snoring like a lay clerk asleep in the sun; and the heat was very great. Auguste, who had taken charge of the lard melting in the pots, was watching over it in a state of perspiration, and Quenu wiped his brow with his sleeve whilst waiting for the blood to mix. A drowsiness such as follows gross feeding, an atmosphere heavy with indigestion, pervaded the kitchen.
"When the man had buried his comrade in the sand," Florent continued slowly, "he walked off alone straight in front of him. Dutch Guiana, in which country he now was, is a land of forests intermingled with rivers and swamps. The man walked on for more than a week without coming across a single human dwelling-place. All around, death seemed to be lurking and lying in wait for him. Though his stomach was racked by hunger, he often did not dare to eat the bright-coloured fruits which hung from the trees; he was afraid to touch the glittering berries, fearing lest they should be poisonous. For whole days he did not see a patch of sky, but tramped on beneath a canopy of branches, amidst a greenish gloom that swarmed with horrible living creatures. Great birds flew over his head with a terrible flapping of wings and sudden strange calls resembling death groans; apes sprang, wild animals rushed through the thickets around him, bending the saplings and bringing down a rain of leaves, as though a gale were passing. But it was particularly the serpents that turned his blood cold when, stepping upon a matting of moving, withered leaves, he caught sight of their slim heads gliding amidst a horrid maze of roots. In certain nooks, nooks of dank shadow, swarming colonies of reptiles—some black, some yellow, some purple, some striped, some spotted, and some resembling withered reeds—suddenly awakened into life and wriggled away. At such times the man would stop and look about for a stone on which he might take refuge from the soft yielding ground into which his feet sank; and there he would remain for hours, terror-stricken on espying in some open space near by a boa, who, with tail coiled and head erect, swayed like the trunk of a big tree splotched with gold.
"At night he used to sleep in the trees, alarmed by the slightest rustling of the branches, and fancying that he could hear endless swarms of serpents gliding through the gloom. He almost stifled beneath the interminable expanse of foliage. The gloomy shade reeked with close, oppressive heat, a clammy dankness and pestilential sweat, impregnated with the coarse aroma of scented wood and malodorous flowers.
"And when at last, after a long weary tramp, the man made his way out of the forest and beheld the sky again, he found himself confronted by wide rivers which barred his way. He skirted their banks, keeping a watchful eye on the grey backs of the alligators and the masses of drifting vegetation, and then, when he came to a less suspicious-looking spot, he swam across. And beyond the rivers the forests began again. At other times there were vast prairie lands, leagues of thick vegetation, in which, at distant intervals, small lakes gleamed bluely. The man then made a wide detour, and sounded the ground beneath him before advancing, having but narrowly escaped from being swallowed up and buried beneath one of those smiling plains which he could hear cracking at each step he took. The giant grass, nourished by all the collected humus, concealed pestiferous marshes, depths of liquid mud; and amongst the expanses of verdure spread over the glaucous immensity to the very horizon there were only narrow stretches of firm ground with which the traveller must be acquainted if he would avoid disappearing for ever. One night the man sank down as far as his waist. At each effort he made to extricate himself the mud threatened to rise to his mouth. Then he remained quite still for nearly a couple of hours; and when the moon rose he was fortunately able to catch hold of a branch of a tree above his head. By the time he reached a human dwelling his hands and feet were bruised and bleeding, swollen with poisonous stings. He presented such a pitiable, famished appearance that those who saw him were afraid of him. They tossed him some food fifty yards away from the house, and the master of it kept guard over his door with a loaded gun."
Florent stopped, his voice choked by emotion, and his eyes gazing blankly before him. For some minutes he had seemed to be speaking to himself alone. Little Pauline, who had grown drowsy, was lying in his arms with her head thrown back, though striving to keep her wondering eyes open. And Quenu, for his part, appeared to be getting impatient.
"Why, you stupid!" he shouted to Leon, "don't you know how to hold a skin yet? What do you stand staring at me for? It's the skin you should look at, not me! There, hold it like that, and don't move again!"
With his right hand Leon was raising a long string of sausage-skin, at one end of which a very wide funnel was inserted; while with his left hand he coiled the black-pudding round a metal bowl as fast as Quenu filled the funnel with big spoonfuls of the meat. The latter, black and steaming, flowed through the funnel, gradually inflating the skin, which fell down again, gorged to repletion and curving languidly. As Quenu had removed the pot from the range both he and Leon stood out prominently, he broad visaged, and the lad slender of profile, in the burning glow which cast over their pale faces and white garments a flood of rosy light.
Lisa and Augustine watched the filling of the skin with great interest, Lisa especially; and she in her turn found fault with Leon because he nipped the skin too tightly with his fingers, which caused knots to form, she said. When the skin was quite full, Quenu let it slip gently into a pot of boiling water; and seemed quite easy in his mind again, for now nothing remained but to leave it to boil.
"And the man—go on about the man!" murmured Pauline, opening her eyes, and surprised at no longer hearing the narrative.
Florent rocked her on his knee, and resumed his story in a slow, murmuring voice, suggestive of that of a nurse singing an infant to sleep.
"The man," he said, "arrived at a large town. There he was at first taken for an escaped convict, and was kept in prison for several months. Then he was released, and turned his hand to all sorts of work. He kept accounts and taught children to read, and at one time he was even employed as a navvy in making an embankment. He was continually hoping to return to his own country. He had saved the necessary amount of money when he was attacked by yellow fever. Then, believing him to be dead, those about him divided his clothes amongst themselves; so that when he at last recovered he had not even a shirt left. He had to begin all over again. The man was very weak, and was afraid he might have to remain where he was. But at last he was able to get away, and he returned."
His voice had sunk lower and lower, and now died away altogether in a final quivering of his lips. The close of the story had lulled little Pauline to sleep, and she was now slumbering with her head on Florent's shoulder. He held her with one arm, and still gently rocked her on his knee. No one seemed to pay any further attention to him, so he remained still and quiet where he was, holding the sleeping child.
Now came the tug of war, as Quenu said. He had to remove the black-puddings from the pot. In order to avoid breaking them or getting them entangled, he coiled them round a thick wooden pin as he drew them out, and then carried them into the yard and hung them on screens, where they quickly dried. Leon helped him, holding up the drooping ends. And as these reeking festoons of black-pudding crossed the kitchen they left behind them a trail of odorous steam, which still further thickened the dense atmosphere.
Auguste, on his side, after giving a hasty glance at the lard moulds, now took the covers off the two pots in which the fat was simmering, and each bursting bubble discharged an acrid vapour into the kitchen. The greasy haze had been gradually rising ever since the beginning of the evening, and now it shrouded the gas and pervaded the whole room, streaming everywhere, and veiling the ruddy whiteness of Quenu and his two assistants. Lisa and Augustine had risen from their seats; and all were panting as though they had eaten too much.
Augustine carried the sleeping Pauline upstairs; and Quenu, who liked to fasten up the kitchen himself, gave Auguste and Leon leave to go to bed, saying that he would fetch the black-pudding himself. The younger apprentice stole off with a very red face, having managed to secrete under his shirt nearly a yard of the pudding, which must have almost scalded him. Then the Quenus and Florent remained alone, in silence. Lisa stood nibbling a little piece of the hot pudding, keeping her pretty lips well apart all the while, for fear of burning them, and gradually the black compound vanished in her rosy mouth.
"Well," said she, "La Normande was foolish in behaving so rudely; the black-pudding's excellent to-day."
However, there was a knock at the passage door, and Gavard, who stayed at Monsieur Lebigre's every evening until midnight, came in. He had called for a definite answer about the fish inspectorship.
"You must understand," he said, "that Monsieur Verlaque cannot wait any longer; he is too ill. So Florent must make up his mind. I have promised to give a positive answer early to-morrow."
"Well, Florent accepts," Lisa quietly remarked, taking another nibble at some black-pudding.
Florent, who had remained in his chair, overcome by a strange feeling of prostration, vainly endeavoured to rise and protest.
"No, no, say nothing," continued Lisa; "the matter is quite settled. You have suffered quite enough already, my dear Florent. What you have just been telling us is enough to make one shudder. It is time now for you to settle down. You belong to a respectable family, you received a good education, and it is really not fitting that you should go wandering about the highways like a vagrant. At your age childishness is no longer excusable. You have been foolish; well, all that will be forgotten and forgiven. You will take your place again among those of your own class—the class of respectable folks—and live in future like other people."
Florent listened in astonishment, quite unable to say a word. Lisa was, doubtless, right. She looked so healthy, so serene, that it was impossible to imagine that she desired anything but what was proper. It was he, with his fleshless body and dark, equivocal-looking countenance, who must be in the wrong, and indulging in unrighteous dreams. He could, indeed, no longer understand why he had hitherto resisted.
Lisa, however, continued to talk to him with an abundant flow of words, as though he were a little boy found in fault and threatened with the police. She assumed, indeed, a most maternal manner, and plied him with the most convincing reasons. And at last, as a final argument, she said:
"Do it for us, Florent. We occupy a fair position in the neighbourhood which obliges us to use a certain amount of circumspection; and, to tell you the truth, between ourselves, I'm afraid that people will begin to talk. This inspectorship will set everything right; you will be somebody; you will even be an honour to us."
Her manner had become caressingly persuasive, and Florent was penetrated by all the surrounding plenteousness, all the aroma filling the kitchen, where he fed, as it were, on the nourishment floating in the atmosphere. He sank into blissful meanness, born of all the copious feeding that went on in the sphere of plenty in which he had been living during the last fortnight. He felt, as it were, the titillation of forming fat which spread slowly all over his body. He experienced the languid beatitude of shopkeepers, whose chief concern is to fill their bellies. At this late hour of night, in the warm atmosphere of the kitchen, all his acerbity and determination melted away. That peaceable evening, with the odour of the black-pudding and the lard, and the sight of plump little Pauline slumbering on his knee, had so enervated him that he found himself wishing for a succession of such evenings—endless ones which would make him fat.
However, it was the sight of Mouton that chiefly decided him. Mouton was sound asleep, with his stomach turned upwards, one of his paws resting on his nose, and his tail twisted over this side, as though to keep him warm; and he was slumbering with such an expression of feline happiness that Florent, as he gazed at him, murmured: "No, it would be too foolish! I accept the berth. Say that I accept it, Gavard."
Then Lisa finished eating her black-pudding, and wiped her fingers on the edge of her apron. And next she got her brother-in-law's candle ready for him, while Gavard and Quenu congratulated him on his decision. It was always necessary for a man to settle down, said they; the breakneck freaks of politics did not provide one with food. And, meantime, Lisa, standing there with the lighted candle in her hand, looked at him with an expression of satisfaction resting on her handsome face, placid like that of some sacred cow.
Three days later the necessary formalities were gone through, and without demur the police authorities at the Prefecture accepted Florent on Monsieur Verlaque's recommendation as his substitute. Gavard, by the way, had made it a point to accompany them. When he again found himself alone with Florent he kept nudging his ribs with his elbow as they walked along together, and laughed, without saying anything, while winking his eyes in a jeering way. He seemed to find something very ridiculous in the appearance of the police officers whom they met on the Quai de l'Horloge, for, as he passed them, he slightly shrugged his shoulders and made the grimace of a man seeking to restrain himself from laughing in people's faces.
On the following morning Monsieur Verlaque began to initiate the new inspector into the duties of his office. It had been arranged that during the next few days he should make him acquainted with the turbulent sphere which he would have to supervise. Poor Verlaque, as Gavard called him was a pale little man, swathed in flannels, handkerchiefs, and mufflers. Constantly coughing, he made his way through the cool, moist atmosphere, and running waters of the fish market, on a pair of scraggy legs like those of a sickly child.
When Florent made his appearance on the first morning, at seven o'clock, he felt quite distracted; his eyes were dazed, his head ached with all the noise and riot. Retail dealers were already prowling about the auction pavilion; clerks were arriving with their ledgers, and consigners' agents, with leather bags slung over their shoulders, sat on overturned chairs by the salesmen's desks, waiting to receive their cash. Fish was being unloaded and unpacked not only in the enclosure, but even on the footways. All along the latter were piles of small baskets, an endless arrival of cases and hampers, and sacks of mussels, from which streamlets of water trickled. The auctioneers' assistants, all looking very busy, sprang over the heaps, tore away the straw at the tops of the baskets, emptied the latter, and tossed them aside. They then speedily transferred their contents in lots to huge wickerwork trays, arranging them with a turn of the hand so that they might show to the best advantage. And when the large tray-like baskets were all set out, Florent could almost fancy that a whole shoal of fish had got stranded there, still quivering with life, and gleaming with rosy nacre, scarlet coral, and milky pearl, all the soft, pale, sheeny hues of the ocean.
The deep-lying forests of seaweed, in which the mysterious life of the ocean slumbers, seemed at one haul of the nets to have yielded up all they contained. There were cod, keeling, whiting, flounders, plaice, dabs, and other sorts of common fish of a dingy grey with whitish splotches; there were conger-eels, huge serpent-like creatures, with small black eyes and muddy, bluish skins, so slimy that they still seemed to be gliding along, yet alive. There were broad flat skate with pale undersides edged with a soft red, and superb backs bumpy with vertebrae, and marbled down to the tautly stretched ribs of their fins with splotches of cinnabar, intersected by streaks of the tint of Florentine bronze—a dark medley of colour suggestive of the hues of a toad or some poisonous flower. Then, too, there were hideous dog-fish, with round heads, widely-gaping mouths like those of Chinese idols, and short fins like bats' wings; fit monsters to keep yelping guard over the treasures of the ocean grottoes. And next came the finer fish, displayed singly on the osier trays; salmon that gleamed like chased silver, every scale seemingly outlined by a graving-tool on a polished metal surface; mullet with larger scales and coarser markings; large turbot and huge brill with firm flesh white like curdled milk; tunny-fish, smooth and glossy, like bags of blackish leather; and rounded bass, with widely gaping mouths which a soul too large for the body seemed to have rent asunder as it forced its way out amidst the stupefaction of death. And on all sides there were sole, brown and grey, in pairs; sand-eels, slim and stiff, like shavings of pewter; herrings, slightly twisted, with bleeding gills showing on their silver-worked skins; fat dories tinged with just a suspicion of carmine; burnished mackerel with green-streaked backs, and sides gleaming with ever-changing iridescence; and rosy gurnets with white bellies, their head towards the centre of the baskets and their tails radiating all around, so that they simulated some strange florescence splotched with pearly white and brilliant vermilion. There were rock mullet, too, with delicious flesh, flushed with the pinky tinge peculiar to the Cyprinus family; boxes of whiting with opaline reflections; and baskets of smelts—neat little baskets, pretty as those used for strawberries, and exhaling a strong scent of violets. And meantime the tiny black eyes of the shrimps dotted as with beads of jet their soft-toned mass of pink and grey; and spiny crawfish and lobsters striped with black, all still alive, raised a grating sound as they tried to crawl along with their broken claws.
Florent gave but indifferent attention to Monsieur Verlaque's explanations. A flood of sunshine suddenly streamed through the lofty glass roof of the covered way, lighting up all these precious colours, toned and softened by the waves—the iridescent flesh-tints of the shell-fish, the opal of the whiting, the pearly nacre of the mackerel, the ruddy gold of the mullets, the plated skins of the herrings, and massive silver of the salmon. It was as though the jewel-cases of some sea-nymph had been emptied there—a mass of fantastical, undreamt-of ornaments, a streaming and heaping of necklaces, monstrous bracelets, gigantic brooches, barbaric gems and jewels, the use of which could not be divined. On the backs of the skate and the dog-fish you saw, as it were, big dull green and purple stones set in dark metal, while the slender forms of the sand-eels and the tails and fins of the smelts displayed all the delicacy of finely wrought silver-work.
And meantime Florent's face was fanned by a fresh breeze, a sharp, salt breeze redolent of the sea. It reminded him of the coasts of Guiana and his voyages. He half fancied that he was gazing at some bay left dry by the receding tide, with the seaweed steaming in the sun, the bare rocks drying, and the beach smelling strongly of the brine. All around him the fish in their perfect freshness exhaled a pleasant perfume, that slightly sharp, irritating perfume which depraves the appetite.
Monsieur Verlaque coughed. The dampness was affecting him, and he wrapped his muffler more closely about his neck.
"Now," said he, "we will pass on to the fresh water fish."
This was in a pavilion beside the fruit market, the last one, indeed, in the direction of the Rue Rambuteau. On either side of the space reserved for the auctions were large circular stone basins, divided into separate compartments by iron gratings. Slender streams of water flowed from brass jets shaped like swan's necks; and the compartments were filled with swarming colonies of crawfish, black-backed carp ever on the move, and mazy tangles of eels, incessantly knotting and unknotting themselves. Again was Monsieur Verlaque attacked by an obstinate fit of coughing. The moisture of the atmosphere was more insipid here than amongst the sea water fish: there was a riverside scent, as of sun-warmed water slumbering on a bed of sand.
A great number of crawfishes had arrived from Germany that morning in cases and hampers, and the market was also crowded with river fish from Holland and England. Several men were unpacking shiny carp from the Rhine, lustrous with ruddy metallic hues, their scales resembling bronzed cloisonne enamel; and others were busy with huge pike, the cruel iron-grey brigands of the waters, who ravenously protruded their savage jaws; or with magnificent dark-hued with verdigris. And amidst these suggestions of copper, iron, and bronze, the gudgeon and perch, the trout, the bleak, and the flat-fish taken in sweep-nets showed brightly white, the steel-blue tints of their backs gradually toning down to the soft transparency of their bellies. However, it was the fat snowy-white barbel that supplied the liveliest brightness in this gigantic collection of still life.
Bags of young carp were being gently emptied into the basins. The fish spun round, then remained motionless for a moment, and at last shot away and disappeared. Little eels were turned out of their hampers in a mass, and fell to the bottom of the compartments like tangled knots of snakes; while the larger ones—those whose bodies were about as thick as a child's arm—raised their heads and slipped of their own accord into the water with the supple motion of serpents gliding into the concealment of a thicket. And meantime the other fish, whose death agony had been lasting all the morning as they lay on the soiled osiers of the basket-trays, slowly expired amidst all the uproar of the auctions, opening their mouths as though to inhale the moisture of the air, with great silent gasps, renewed every few seconds.
However, Monsieur Verlaque brought Florent back to the salt water fish. He took him all over the place and gave him the minutest particulars about everything. Round the nine salesmen's desks ranged along three sides of the pavilion there was now a dense crowd of surging, swaying heads, above which appeared the clerks, perched upon high chairs and making entries in their ledgers.
"Are all these clerks employed by the salesmen?" asked Florent.
By way of reply Monsieur Verlaque made a detour along the outside footway, led him into the enclosure of one of the auctions, and then explained the working of the various departments of the big yellow office, which smelt strongly of fish and was stained all over by drippings and splashings from the hampers. In a little glazed compartment up above, the collector of the municipal dues took note of the prices realised by the different lots of fish. Lower down, seated upon high chairs and with their wrists resting upon little desks, were two female clerks, who kept account of the business on behalf of the salesmen. At each end of the stone table in front of the office was a crier who brought the basket-trays forward in turn, and in a bawling voice announced what each lot consisted of; while above him the female clerk, pen in hand, waited to register the price at which the lots were knocked down. And outside the enclosure, shut up in another little office of yellow wood, Monsieur Verlaque showed Florent the cashier, a fat old woman, who was ranging coppers and five-franc pierces in piles.
"There is a double control, you see," said Monsieur Verlaque; "the control of the Prefecture of the Seine and that of the Prefecture of Police. The latter, which licenses the salesmen, claims to have the right of supervision over them; and the municipality asserts its right to be represented at the transactions as they are subject to taxation."
He went on expatiating at length in his faint cold voice respecting the rival claims of the two Prefectures. Florent, however, was paying but little heed, his attention being concentrated on a female clerk sitting on one of the high chairs just in front of him. She was a tall, dark woman of thirty, with big black eyes and an easy calmness of manner, and she wrote with outstretched fingers like a girl who had been taught the regulation method of the art.
However, Florent's attention was diverted by the yelping of the crier, who was just offering a magnificent turbot for sale.
"I've a bid of thirty francs! Thirty francs, now; thirty francs!"
He repeated these words in all sorts of keys, running up and down a strange scale of notes full of sudden changes. Humpbacked and with his face twisted askew, and his hair rough and disorderly, he wore a great blue apron with a bib; and with flaming eyes and outstretched arms he cried vociferously: "Thirty-one! thirty-two! thirty-three! Thirty-three francs fifty centimes! thirty-three fifty!"
Then he paused to take breath, turning the basket-tray and pushing it farther upon the table. The fish-wives bent forward and gently touched the turbot with their finger-tips. Then the crier began again with renewed energy, hurling his figures towards the buyers with a wave of the hand and catching the slightest indication of a fresh bid—the raising of a finger, a twist of the eyebrows, a pouting of the lips, a wink, and all with such rapidity and such a ceaseless jumble of words that Florent, utterly unable to follow him, felt quite disconcerted when, in a sing-song voice like that of a priest intoning the final words of a versicle, he chanted: "Forty-two! forty-two! The turbot goes for forty-two francs."